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Your winter health protection plan

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Want to combat the dreaded ‘winter bugs and blues’ season? Safeguard yourself with Dr Trisha Macnair’s tips.

As autumn disappears it can be a struggle to cope with the challenges of chillier days. The clocks go back, the days shorten and we stick closer to the fire, or spend longer under a duvet where it’s warm and cosy. But the more we stay in, the less active we become - missing out on the daily exercise so important for good health. As the light fades earlier and earlier, many of us also find our mood starts to drop. And, if we do venture out, we risk respiratory infections or slipping and falling on icy pavements. Our diet also changes; we tend to eat less fresh fruit and vegetables, for example, turning instead to comfort foods and sweet treats.
There’s no doubt that winter has all sorts of implications for our well-being. Prevention is always better than cure, so now is the time to think about what we can do to keep as healthy as possible until spring. Here are some ideas for your own winter health protection plan.

KEEP ACTIVE

Start by finding ways to keep active - no matter how bad the weather. Regular exercise boosts every bodily system, to help improve strength and balance, digestion, mood and even immunity. Often the key is just finding the motivation to get up and out into the fresh air, despite biting winds or pouring rain. Check out local walks where you can appreciate the drama of autumnal colours, or join a walking group where good company or a pub along the way may tempt you out. Invest in suitable outdoor clothing to keep you warm and protected from the elements: sturdy footwear with non-slip soles is vital, as are clip-on ice grips for when the frosts hit, and a hiking pole.
If the weather is really bad, sign up for indoor activities and try something new, such as badminton or bowling. Even if you stay at home more, get up frequently and do some simple stretching and balance exercises. Pilates or yoga are both great for core muscle work, so take a class to learn the basics and then clear a corner of the house where you can practise regularly.

EAT WELL
If you’re going out for bracing walks, you need fuel to keep your internal fires burning. Most of us do less in the winter, while still eating more. As it gets colder, our appetite increases for carbohydrate-rich foods, possibly because of ancient mechanisms that encourage the body to add to its stores of fat in anticipation of limited food supplies during winter. But in our modern world, snacks or processed foods packed with sugar or fats are readily available. As a result, most people put on 1-2 pounds.
Put simply, at lower temperatures the body craves foods that promise an energy burn to warm it up fast. Turning to quick-burn foods can destabilise hunger control, causing high peaks and troughs in blood sugar levels. It’s better to eat slow-burn carbs instead, such as stews full of root vegetables.
It’s also important to keep protein intake up. Not only does a good supply of protein help to regulate appetite and keep muscles strong, but it is essential for the immune system.
At any time of year it’s important to make sure your diet provides your vitamin and mineral needs. If you have any doubts, take a daily multivitamin. In winter, when sunlight is poor and can’t provide enough ultraviolet light to stimulate vitamin D production, almost everyone needs vitamin D supplements. Vitamin D plays a part in many of the body’s systems. Many other foods also have a reputation for boosting the immune system - from the vitamin C-rich citrus fruits and peppers to garlic, full of important sulphur compounds and green veg packed with antioxidant vitamins A, C and E. 

KEEP INFECTION AWAY
Few of us escape the misery of respiratory infections during winter. Most are caused by viruses and are little more than a miserable nuisance. Your own immune system should be able to fight them and you don’t need antibiotics. More serious infections - whether flu or bacterial infections such as pneumonia - can be a particular risk, especially for older people, smokers and those with lung disease.
It’s hard to avoid winter bugs completely as we are continually exposed, especially to cold viruses, and it only takes a small dose in your nose to start a cold. The idea that catching a chill will cause a cold is up for debate, but research does show that being tired or stressed makes you more vulnerable, so take steps to get enough sleep and deal with any problems.
Make sure your diet is packed with everything your immune system needs to be on top form. Boost your defences by taking probiotics (supplements of “friendly” bacteria) or prebiotics (foods that your own gut bacteria thrive on). Make sure hygiene is tip-top too - especially if someone around you has a respiratory infection – by washing hands regularly.
Consider getting a flu vaccination, available on the NHS to those who are particularly vulnerable. You can also pay for one at your local pharmacy – it’s a good investment. And if you are 65 or over, you may be eligible for a vaccination against pneumococcal pneumonia. Ask at your surgery.

CHECK YOUR MOOD

One of the factors shown to make us more vulnerable to respiratory infections is emotional stress. There are many different ways to deal with stress, from meditation to talking therapies, so explore them and see what works for you. 
For some of us, it is winter itself that makes us feel blue. It may be just the cold and feeling cooped up that causes these low feelings. In that case, getting out, good food, and exercise should help. But about 1 in 15 people in the UK have a particular form of depression, with symptoms including low mood, apathy, withdrawal and sleep problems, linked to the long dark winter days. 
This is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder or ‘SAD’, and typically reappears each year between October to March, followed by bursts of energy when spring arrives. Treatment can be very effective, and includes light therapy (spending time in front of a special light box) as well as cognitive behavioural therapy and antidepressant drugs.
We can all benefit from spending a little time on our mental health in the winter. Follow the five steps for mental well being - connect with others, be active, keep learning, give to or help others, and take notice of the world around you (practise mindfulness) – to beat the winter blues.

Lighten up

Here’s how to let some light back in to your l life as the days get shorter:

GET OUTSIDE
Walk every day for 20-30 minutes – it will boost heart rate and circulation (helping to keep you fit and trim) and is about the best mood lifter there is. If there’s some winter sun to enjoy, so much the better.

HAVE A SALAD DAY

Keep that sunshine feeling going with a crisp salad of green leaves and colourful peppers, but for a winter twist, add roasted tomatoes and warm chicken or prawns.

WEAR IT BRIGHT

Just because the weather is drab it doesn’t mean your clothes have to be. Feeling good about how you look can give a tremendous psychological boost.

DIG OUT SNAPS
Remind yourself of warmer days by digging our your summer photos and sharing the memories with your loved ones.

combines work as a hospital physician in the field of Medicine for the Elderly with freelance medical journalism. She writes and broadcasts for BBC Radio and BBC Online. She recently completed an MA in Medical Ethics and Medical Law. More from this expert.

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